Dhamma Heir

A problem that arises in every sect of Buddhism is the Dhamma Heir. The Dhamma King. In some sects, unfortunately, it is codified, in others it just happens that way. In all cases it’s a huge problem.

A person arises in a community who is either enlightened or just very charismatic. Naturally, people flock to be near him or her and hear their teaching. Even just being around a highly realized person can be a powerful experience. A community of lay donors springs up around this person they are very proud of. A sangha of monks or nuns comes to rely on the lay followers. Then, eventually, the charismatic leader passes on. What next?

Now, in my opinion most of what I described above is potentially fine and normal but potentially problematic. If you have a leader that is charismatic but not all that enlightened, you have the possibility, in fact the likelihood of abuse of power.

Even someone as universally loved as Ajahn Chah troubles me in this regard. Even his devoted students talk about his erratic and sometimes frankly weird behavior. He is portrayed as keeping up his disciples all night to harangue them. One story I heard from Ajahn Brahm involved him threatening to throw a mentally unstable young woman into a pool of boiling water. Now, all of these incidents are portrayed as the crazy wisdom of an enlightened soul. Maybe. I personally don’t think that is the behaviour of an arahat.

Things get even worse as positions become ossified and passed down generation after generation.

There are few better examples of this than Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. On the one hand, he was clearly an incredibly charismatic figure who brought some wisdom and dhamma to lots of people. On the other hand he was a troubled figure who brought a lot of pain and suffering in the world as well. Accounts portray him as  an alcoholic sexual predator who may have also been addicted to cocaine. Nevertheless his students found it difficult to condemn behavior that was clearly against the Buddhadhamma at least partly because of his mighty spiritual station.

I personally believe this was a part of how the Theravada/Mahayana split began. After Buddhism was made more or less the official religion of India, it was awash in money and patrons. Huge colleges and temple complexes sprang up. My guess is that the leaders of these institutions styled themselves arahats regardless of their actual attainment. Eventually reformist monks came to associate the term arahat with corruption and worldly power rather than pure spiritual attainment as it was originally meant. They saw these worldly monks and though, “If that’s an arahat, I want none of it.” In this way, a very similar thing happened in classical Rome with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. Christianity benefitted by money and support but in a way lost its soul.

Buddhism was founded as an anarchist religion, or at least democratic. Yes, the Buddha had the final say on his teachings, but he didn’t use political power even within the sangha for his own benefit. And he fairly clearly did not want to leader of the sangha after his death. He wanted the dhamma to be the leader of the sangha. He wanted monks and nuns to think for themselves. He wanted groups of monks and nuns to govern themselves. As much as I admire the current Dalai Lama, I think the position itself is very much against the teachings of the actual Buddha. It ought to be abolished. The same can be said of all the little tyrants in charge of smaller monasteries.

There is only one Dhamma Heir. The dhamma.


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